Monday, February 8, 2010

Thoughts from Beyond the Sea: A Bioshock 2 Interview

Prior to the launch of Bioshock 2, I had an opportunity to sit in on a Q&A with the developers of the game. This is what I discovered. You can listen to the entire conversation at Hooked Gamers.

Perhaps no developer has dealt with more pressure and scrutiny than 2K Marin. The original BioShock, released in 2007, was a truly original title in its Art Deco design, dystopian setting, moral quandary, and Randian inspiration. Given BioShock’s fully developed story, many questioned the need for a sequel.

With BioShock 2’s release date imminent, I had the opportunity to sit in on a conference call including the game’s Creative Director Jordan Thomas, Lead Designer Zak McClendon, and Lead Environmental Artist Hogarth De La Plante – all members of 2K Marin, the studio built specifically for BioShock’s sequel. The developers discussed the challenges of making a sequel to 2007’s most beloved game, in addition to the inspirations and thought processes behind certain design decisions for the sequel.

In the Shadow of a Giant

“Everybody who joined [2K Marin] was an immense fan of the first game… There was a lot of reverence to it, which can lead to a lot of second-guessing and a lot of trying to please everyone,” said McClendon. The developers at 2K Marin had to find a balance in BioShock 2: They couldn’t simply follow in the footsteps of BioShock developer Irrational Games, nor could they rebel against it irresponsibly.

Jordan Thomas elaborated on maintaining BioShock’s influence. “The setting of Rapture will never be as new as it was in the first game. And I think trying to change that would have been folly on many levels.”

“BioShock has an extremely detailed mythos: The backstory is novel length… Adding new history into that canon was certainly a challenge, and it’s something that I took very seriously. The writing team in general had to become very familiar with the script of the first game so that we weren’t contradicting ourselves.”

To balance mythos with originality, the team decided on a central theme of family for BioShock 2 – an exploration of the perverted father-daughter relationship between Big Daddies and Little Sisters. Players experience the game through Subject Delta, the first Big Daddy successfully bonded to a Little Sister. “He’s really out in search of his original Little Sister, so he has a much more personal stake… [in] Rapture itself.”

Jesus or Hitler?

While maintaining perhaps the most iconic representation of BioShock, exploring the father-daughter relationship as a Big Daddy also offered 2K Marin a number of opportunities in the development of moral choices. The developers specifically acknowledged BioShock’s choice to harvest or save Little Sisters as lacking depth. Maintaining that same binary gameplay for a Big Daddy “would undermine the value of a moral choice,” Thomas stated. “You are still called upon to make those choices but you are not forced to mistreat [Little Sisters].”

Zak McClendon elaborated, “We tried to make our choices around the Little Sister a little bit more grey. It’s both harder to be good and more rewarding to be really truly evil.” Adopting and eventually harvesting Little Sisters in BioShock 2 provides players with a great deal of ADAM as in the first game. However, unlike the original, saving Little Sisters in BioShock 2 leaves players starved for ADAM – there exists no benefactor to reward a player’s kind nature. “But there’s a middle ground and if you are the kind of player who really wants to work for it and gather ADAM from bodies and save Little Sisters, you can keep pace with the selfish player… but you’re going to be doing a whole lot more work for it.”

“We’re hoping that gameplay choice is actually a little bit more reflective of the choices that go on in your head when you’re trying to deal with complex moral situations.”

Destructive Altruism

Considering the central theme of a father-daughter bond, 2K Marin wanted to create an antagonist early on that would “subvert the traditional definition of family through a heavily altruistic filter for the common good above individual loyalty,” Jordan Thomas stated. 2K Marin created Dr. Sophia Lamb, borrowing influences from numerous altruistic philosophers both past and present, including John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, Richard Dawkins, and David Pearce.

Given Lamb’s contrasting philosophy when compared to Andrew Ryan, her influence on Rapture is much different. BioShock 2 explores “the perspective of the disenfranchised, the perspective of the altruist or the religious – [philosophies] that would have been banned by Andrew Ryan, but in the areas informed by Sophia, these things were kind of battle-flags. They were her attempts to control culture and assassinate Ryan’s character from the ground up.”

“[She] has a very different attitude and her splicers are deeply loyal and adopted the butterfly, the symbol of their faith. You see a lot of that motif with her,” said Thomas.

Rethinking Combat

Outside of the story, casting a Big Daddy as BioShock 2’s protagonist also offered 2K Marin new and evolved gameplay features. At the outset, the development team had to reevaluate the workings of weapons, the feel of the character, and the balance of combat. “It really was a good way for us to bring a fresh perspective to all the gameplay of BioShock,” said McClendon.

He also cited Subject Delta’s ability to dual wield weapons and plasmids as BioShock 2’s biggest improvement over its predecessor. Players don’t have to think, “I’m going to switch to my plasmids, use Electro Bolt, shock the guy, switch back to my weapons, equip the wrench, and hit the guy.” McClendon stated, “It’s all part of just one fluid action for players, and it really brings a whole lot more immediacy to the experience. It was one of the first things that we added when we were still working with the early BioShock toolset, and it just changed the way the game played substantially.”

Despite greatly increasing the protagonist’s prowess and durability, 2K Marin aimed to maintain the visceral and adrenaline-pumping combat of BioShock. Ten years after the events of the original game, Rapture is apparently a much more dangerous and hostile place – a place that Jack Ryan could never have survived. “The Big Daddies are still immensely challenging for you, and we have a new Big Daddy type, the Rumbler… You may get knocked down a few times and have to replan your strategy. It’s not meant to be an even battle most of the time.”

“The first time you went toe to toe with a Big Daddy in the medical pavilion in [BioShock] was just shocking and terrifying… We have a lot more of that when you fight the Big Sisters.”

All Grown Up

Big Sisters are physically unstable grown-up Little Sisters – manifestations of a father’s influence on his daughter, given their appearance and desire to protect other Little Sisters. “The ADAM they’ve been ingesting for years and years and years has begun to manifest,” Jordan Thomas explained.

Zak McClendon discussed the design philosophy behind these Big Daddy-Little Sister hybrids – a philosophy that greatly contrasts their lethal nature. “Whereas the Big Daddies have this kindly old man, weary, lumbering appeal to them, the Big Sisters were meant to embody an awkward adolescent phase… They’re a little awkward in their posing and they have leg braces.”

Despite their awkwardness, Big Sisters still maintain a grace and soft edge, further accentuating the idea that they are Little Sisters who have grown up too fast. “Some of the smaller details that you may not notice during gameplay are things like little ribbons on the basket that she uses to carry Little Sisters or small childlike drawings on her tank.”

Taking a Break

While maintaining the visceral combat of BioShock was important to 2K Marin, continuing the isolation and perpetual tension was not. As Hogarth De La Plante stated, “We had a lot people who said, ‘It’s sort of weird that I walk around in the city and all I see are these murdering splicers all the time. Aren’t there any other normal people like me who live down here?’”

Subject Delta has the opportunity to meet “normal human inhabitants who aren’t spliced up murderous lunatics.” As De La Plante explained, these sane inhabitants provide a much-needed respite from the hectic and tense combat, while also being important to the narrative. “I think they really do help make [Rapture] feel a little bit less lonely.”

McClendon also weighed in on why 2K Marin wanted to create a more varied pace in BioShock 2. “Rapture from the inside is such a dangerous, tense place and so many people who played the first game, when we talked to them, talked about how they never felt safe and never [enjoyed] the beauty of the environment.”

McClendon cited such fan feedback as motivation for the game’s outdoor levels. Going outside affords players a lull from splicers and Big Daddies and Big Sisters while providing a view of “this gorgeous amazing city from a different perspective.”

Maximizing a Sequel

While BioShock was a story complete in and of itself, 2K Marin tried to make the sequel both familiar and original by allowing players to explore Rapture from a different perspective and different philosophical viewpoint. This strategy allows players unfamiliar with BioShock to enjoy its sequel by itself, while also allowing veteran players to gain a new appreciation for an existing world.

A sequel to BioShock may never have been necessary, but 2K Marin certainly attempted to make it welcome.

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